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By Regina Dennis
Waco Tribune-Herald via Associated Press
Texas prisoners who complete an intense business entrepreneurship program while behind bars will earn a green and gold stamp of approval for their studies.
Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business now will award certificates of entrepreneurship to state inmates who successfully finish six months of business courses through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit initiative based at the Cleveland Correctional Center state jail, located northwest of Houston.
The entrepreneurship program, which started in 2004, teaches inmates to prepare business plans as a means of readying them for careers after they are released from prison.
The 67 men who graduated from the program in December were the first to receive the certificates through Baylor. For at least half of the program’s participants, it was their first time receiving any sort of certificate or diploma from an educational institution.
“When I announced to the group that they would be receiving a certificate from Baylor upon successful completion, there were tears, literally,” said Gary Carini, associate dean for graduate programs in the business school.
“It is such a vote of confidence for these guys who’ve been, for a variety of reasons, through tough stuff, and they would be the first to admit by their own fault. But yet (they) are so hungry to get back on the road to, as the organization says, instead of being tax consumers becoming taxpayers.”
Baylor has been involved with the program since 2007. Each semester, around 30 business, marketing and accounting graduate students volunteer to review the inmates’ business plans and offer advice and corrections.
Though students never meet or interact directly with the inmates, Carini said the exchange gives them a way to sharpen their skills while also serving others.
“This is about really mobilizing knowledge and information that we have to help others,” said Carini, who also has taught some of the prison courses. “From the university’s perspective, when you mobilize knowledge, you actually increase your knowledge. It’s not just sitting on a piece of paper. In your mind, you’re actually using it and that reinforces the actual learning that takes place.”
Other business schools, like those at Texas A&M University, University of Houston and Harvard University, also assist in reviewing plans and doing market research on the proposals since the inmates do not have Internet access.
But Jeremy Gregg, development director for the entrepreneurship program, said having Baylor lend its name and confidence for the certificates could boost efforts to expand the program and encourage other states to adopt a similar model. At least nine states and three countries have visited the Cleveland facility to observe the initiative, he said.
The program is open to male inmates from minimum and medium security Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities. Candidates must be on pace to be released from prison within three years, have or obtain a high school diploma or GED, must not have committed a significant jail infraction within the previous year, and cannot have a record for committing a sexual-based offense.
“There’s a pilot based on PEP that’s now operating successfully in Germany, and one in Virginia,” Gregg said. “We believe that the PEP model is one that can scale, and the endorsement from Baylor is a huge part of that and we are actively looking to grow the program.”
Gregg said about 95 percent of the graduates obtain jobs within 90 days of being released from prison. And the recidivism rate for program participants is about 5 percent, compared to 24 percent of Texas inmates and 50 percent of prisoners nationally who re-offend and return to jail, he said.
Gregg said the prison entrepreneurship program has graduated about 860 inmates since it started, and 109 men now are enrolled and working toward a June graduation. Gregg said he would like to see the Cleveland Correctional Center eventually occupied only by the entrepreneurship inmates.
At least 120 of the graduates went on to actually start businesses after they were released, from home remodeling and electrical repair to food trucks or glass art, he said. The program has assisted some of the men in acquiring loans or angel investors to start their companies. A few even have hired fellow program graduates to work for them.
“We don’t think we can save everybody, but we believe there are thousands of people who can benefit from PEP, who can transform their lives and come out of prison, find a job or create a job and in some cases create many jobs for others,” Gregg said.